Integrating Faith and Action
The history of Christianity in the United States is a portrait of broad strokes and vivid hues placed on the expansive canvas of this continent. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed so long ago, the churches play a central role in our culture. This moment in American history is no exception. Religious beliefs and affiliations remain an important facet of our lives. For most American Christians, this is best represented by the realities of congregational life. It is in local congregations that we are regularly renewed by worship, sustained in life’s trials by the sacraments, and joined with others in service to our communities and to the larger world.
The well being of local congregations, then, is important to the faith of the individual believer and to the communities in which they are located. Well-rounded congregations are what is needed now. If churches address the spiritual needs of their constituents but not the care of others, they are failing to live the essence of their biblical traditions. If churches emphasize social action but fail to address the spiritual hunger of their members, they fail their members and their mission as well. People need both to be nurtured by their faith and to express that faith in the world.
Steps Toward Making a Difference
What are some important steps that a congregation could take that demonstrate an integration of faith and action and that help make a difference in our world? Here are a few.
Collaborate. In the last century, we may have moved too far away from the large parish concept of the Roman Catholic Church by establishing a proliferation of Protestant congregations that have often competed rather than cooperated with one another. Now we are beginning to recognize that it is through collaborative rather than competitive efforts that we can develop stronger congregational ties.
Cooperation with other Christian traditions will be crucial in the coming years. One of the goals of the National Council of Churches is to work with churches of different faith traditions to broaden the ecumenical table. Our vision is a table that includes not only our own members, but also Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics. Together, these representatives of diverse theological positions can find ways to work with one another in common cause, for example, in addressing the needs of the poor. This may be a new concept for many churches, but it is a concept that can benefit us all—in churches and in the broader society.
Honor minority views. Another area in which congregations can gain from a shift in their thinking has to do with the democratic process. Congregations and denominations need to recognize that God’s will cannot be discerned simply by majority vote. We have organized congregations and denominations around democratic voting practices, yet we must recognize that, within a congregation at any one time, the minority may be right. As we move forward, it will be important for us to find ways to honor positions held by the minority rather than shutting off dialogue because it doesn’t conform to the majority view.
Get political. I would also like to see congregations lose their fear of politics and elected officials. The separation of church and state is an important part of our American heritage, but it should never be used to separate people of faith from institutions of government. Nor should it suggest that people of faith have no role in the many public policy initiatives that have faith implications. Congregations that follow the call and the covenant of the Old and New Testaments can and should have a great impact on public policy, as the dictates of faith require.
Communication with elected officials, if done properly, is a way congregations can have a positive impact and witness in the world. During my years of service in Congress, I often advised people to honor the golden rule, to treat their elected officials as they would like to be treated. It is this approach that, I believe, yields the most positive results. The best communication takes place eye to eye, in the local district, and it takes place in careful discussion that emphasizes dialogue rather than a one-way stance on the issue at hand. Dialogue on political issues should also be encouraged within the congregation. Without taking sides, pastors need to provide opportunities for all sides of the issues to be heard. A church that is open to a variety of points of view is a healthy church and can gain much from such a candid exchange.
Learn conflict resolution. while involvement in the political process can be an effective ministry, not all public witness is legislative in nature. Many issues that do not have a legislative solution require conflict resolution. For this reason, I urge churches to learn conflict resolution techniques and practice them within their own communities.
Over the next 10 or 15 years, theological schools need to add courses in conflict resolution to the curriculum, and pastors and lay leaders already in the field need to be encouraged to include conflict resolution as one of the roles they can play in their communities. A possible source of funding for conflict resolution training may be the foundations that already support religious groups. As a part of this training, we need to enable spiritual leaders to discern the Spirit in issues of conflict. In times of trouble, such abilities contribute much to the wider community.
Be impatient. Congregations can make an even greater difference by refusing to be patient in the face of injustice and human need. Churches serve faithfully by recognizing the urgency of the most pressing issues confronting the world today. World hunger is urgent. Poverty among children is urgent. Violence around the world is an urgent concern. When faced with issues like these, faithfulness requires the passion of impatience. In such settings, it is time for us to set aside our patient ways and to speak out and to take action.
Model inclusion. Pastors and the members of their congregations can also make important difference simply by modeling a different way of being—a way of tolerance and inclusion. Congregations are blessed with unique opportunities to build bridges with people of religious traditions that are different from their own. Churches increasingly share pulpits. They help their congregations better understand the Muslim community, the Jewish community, and other religious communities in their area. They help to communicate respect for diversity, and engender peace and cooperation.
The vibrant life of American congregations within the context of ouor American culture offers rich opportunities for the free exercise of our deepest religious convictions. Across the country today, clergy and laity together are finding renewed energies for witness and service to those in need, as well as a deepening of faith. We remain confident that congregational life will, by God’s grace, continue to make a difference one step at a time.
To Repair the World
Congregation as House of Worship, Community, and Study
With each successive generation, the congregation has become increasingly important to American Jews as the locus of Jewish community and the touchstone of Jewish identification.
There was a period in our history when secular Judaism was very lively, when many Jews lived in Jewish neighborhoods, spoke Yiddish, read Jewish literature, and maintained close ties with Israel, but that experience is not so common anymore. While secular Jewish traditions remain alive, they have been difficult to
transmit from one generation to the next. As a result, identity has been increasingly constructed as religious, and religion is seen as the center of community.
The Jewish concept of congregation is three-pronged: The synagogue is called, in Hebrew, a beit t’fillah, a house of worship; a beit knesset, a house of community; and a beit midrash, a house of study. These functions are considered inextricably intertwined.
By extension, the notion of a synagogue as a house of community means that it functions as the center for tikun olam, the repair of the world. Because of the great diversity within and among congregations, this mission may be expressed in a variety of ways. For some, tikun olam translates into political action; for others, it may speak to social action, or the creation of a caring community. Although congregations provide forums for the discussion of political and social issues such as school vouchers and gun control, the congregation is not asked to adopt a single position.
If the membership happens to be of one mind on a particular issue, a synagogue might choose to take a stand politically or to participate in a demonstration. Most Jewish congregations, however, are composed of people with diverse views, so tikun olam is more typically expressed in less controversial activities, such as sponsoring a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, or a tutoring program.
While the form of the action differs from one community to the next, I believe taht congregations ought to provide their members with a greater number of outlets to fulfill this imperative to repair the world.
Focus on Learning
At the same time, synagogues need to be doing a better job of fulfilling their other roles. They need to work at making worship more compelling and meaningful, and they need to create a richer, more supportive community for their members.
Of particular interest to me is the need to promote learning, for both young and old. Especially among adults, there is a renewed interest in the Hebrew language and a new interest in studying sacred texts. Synagogues must become congregations of learners, finding new ways of involving an ever-widening cohort of learners in deeper and more engaged study. Finally, synagogues need to become learning congregations, organizations which are reflective and deliberative, continually assessing their activities and challenging themselves in new ways.
Sometimes support from outside the congregation is needed to enable a synagogue to accomplish these ambitious goals. Fortunately, such support is available. Each of the Jewish movements (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist) has a central office that works with congregations, putting them in touch with needed resources and suggesting new approaches to old dilemmas.
Every congregation needs help in keeping up with the changing needs of its members and of the Jewish community at large, in envisioning goals beyond what has already been done, and in taking on new and ambitious challenges. The Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE), a project of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, has spent nearly a decade working intensively with Jewish congregations, guiding them through a task-force process through which they can become both congregations of learners and learning congregations. Within a year, the ideas and resources of the ECE will be available to all congregations over the Internet.
Congregation as Conduit
How Congregations and Communities Can Connect
To understand the importance of congregations and the differences they make in our communities, it is important to recognize that religion is multidimensional. For church members, congregations are places to come together with others of like beliefs to worship. They are a source of strength and support, and of consolation in times of crisis. They are a place to celebrate rites of passage related to birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. But they are also places that ask us to think outside ourselves and to feel a responsibility to and connection with the communities in which we live and work. In that sense, congregations are sociological institutions that exist, in part, to address issues that are of common concern to members of a larger community.
Making an Impact in Los Angeles
The county of Los Angeles is a prime example of the impact that congregations can have on the larger community. What has impressed me about the thousands of churches, synagogues, and mosques in this area is the social role that these congregations play, particularly within minority and immigrant communities. For instance, there are mega-churches, particularly in the African American community, that engage in social ministries ranging from low income housing construction to job readiness programs to small business loan and mentorship programs.
There are also many churches in Los Angeles County that serve a variety of immigrant populations. In these churches, social service programs often take the form of helping members gain access to health care and find housing or employment. Beyond helping to fulfill these basic needs, many of these churches also help their members to become integrated into American society by helping them learn English, educating them about the American system of democratic government, assisting them in becoming citizens, and encouraging them to vote.
But, at the same time that these churches are helping their members acclimate themselves to the new culture in which they are living, they are also helping to preserve the culture from which they came. For members of these congregations, church events provide opportunities to speak their native language, eat foods from their homeland, and to celebrate rites of passage in ways that are traditional for them. Members of these churches often make connections that allow them to create “extended families” that substitute for the extended families they left behind when they came to the United States, and the church can also be a conduit for other immigrants wishing to come to the United States, providing a contact point and a supportive community though which new immigrants can enter this new world.
Another important function that I believe churches fulfill is the humanization of social service delivery. This was exemplified by the huge rush of support from congregations in both inner city and suburban neighborhoods after the riots that ensued following the trial of the police officers charged with brutality against Rodney King. In addition to cleaning up debris and providing food to citizens in areas where stores had been burned out, churches responded to this crisis by attempting to create partnerships between inner city and suburban churches across the racial divide in an effort to reweave the social fabric that the riots had rent apart. It was churches who created opportunities for people talk to each other about the conflicts and feelings that had given rise to the riots, and worked toward healing the divisions between groups.
Congregations Can’t Do It Alone
Despite their success with so many social service endeavors, it is important to recognize that churches do not wish to carry the burden of social needs alone. A recent survey of California churches revealed that, although over 90 percent of all churches provide some type of community service, pastors were nearly unanimous in the view that the church could not take over the social welfare role of the state. Churches can and do, however, serve in an advocacy role on behalf of the disenfranchised. Through community organizing, churches can put pressure on
government to be responsive to the needs of those who might otherwise be powerless. State-based organizing movements, such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) or the Pacific Institute of Community Organizing (PICO), can give a collective power and voice to small and mid-sized congregations who may not be able to make themselves heard otherwise.
Churches may need to seek support for their social service efforts, as well, through partnerships with foundations or with government. All Saints’ Episcopal is Pasadena, of which I am a member, is an example of the effectiveness of this strategy, having been the catalyst for a $14 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation that will provide after-school activities for youth by bringing together public schools, libraries, museums, and athletic and a variety of other neighborhood-based programs.
Making Time to Turn Within
In addition to seeking support for their community efforts, churches also need to take care of their own if they are to continue their good work both within and outside their congregations. First, they need to provide their pastors with opportunities for thinking outside their own experience. Denominational offices and places like the Alban Institute can play a valuable role in this regard because they offer conferences, retreats, and think-tank groups in which clergy can participate and cross-fertilize each other’s imaginations, rethink their organizational structures, and get insights as to how they might more accurately assess the needs of their congregations and communities.
There is a need, too, for both clergy and the members of their congregations to have quiet spaces and times to focus, to meditate, and to draw on a higher power. Churches may have to seek outside resources to fulfill that need, whether it be from individuals who can facilitate meditative experiences or retreat centers that simply provide the space and silence we all need—to renew ourselves and our faith, to reexamine ourselves and our moral responsibilities, and to return strengthened and refreshed to our lives in our congregations and communities.
Contributing in a Particular Style
Finding From The National Congregations Study
Congregations get a lot of attention, and rightly so, in connection with the social services they provide. But the National Congregations Study, funded by the Lilly Endowment and completed last year, has revealed that the contributions American congregations make in this area are noteworthy more for their uniquely personal quality than for their number or size. “It is not so much the amount of activity that congregations do,” says Mark Chaves, associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona and prinicipal investigator in the study, “but that they do it in a particular way, with a particular style.”
Chaves says that while only a small minority of congregations—mainly the larger ones—are intensively engaged in social services, their involvement follows a typical pattern: “What they mainly do is organize small groups of volunteers to do some well-defined task periodically, things like sending five people to cook dinner at a homeless shelter every Wednesday night or having a youth group that spends the summer painting schools.”
The congregation’s distinctive edge, Chaves says, lies in its ability to make available these small volunteer groups, which average only about ten people in size. He suggests that if a government or community agency were looking for a way to get congregations involved in its initiatives, the way to do it would be to develop programs that made use of such groups.
Congregations in poorer neighborhoods, the study found, are usually more socially active if they have a contingent of middle-class people coming in from outside the community to attend church. “I think it’s a resource issue,” says Chaves. “Congregations with middle-class constituencies have more resources to do these kinds of things.”
According to the study, it is fairly common for congregations to be politically involved in some way. About a third of those who attend religious services hear announcements from the pulpit about opportunities for political activity, and about a quarter have received voter guides from their congregations.
In addition, 20 percent of American churchgoers belong to congregations that organized or participated in some kind of demonstration during the past year. Smaller percentages of survey respondents said that their churches engaged in voter registration or lobbying activities. Even fewer (6 percent) reported that the churches they attend have invited a candidate for public office to address the congregation.
Although, says Chaves, the proportion of church members involved in political activities represents a clear minority, “for organizations that are not at their core political organizations, those are kind of high numbers.”
Interestingly, the study showed that congregations are cultural and artistic organizations much more than they are social service or political organizations. They may engage in community by putting on performances or making the church building available for community productions. Further, notes Chaves, an artistic emphasis is often seen in the normal work of the congregation, that is, in worship services. “Obviously,” he says, “there’s a lot of artistic stuff that happens in worship services even though people don’t tend to think of it [that way]. Music is the most obvious example, but also dramatic performances—both kids and adults doing skits or pageants, making banners and that kind of thing.”